Dan Gorman and his dedicated team in a year of COVID-19!

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Dan Gorman has been the Food Service Director for two Michigan districts, Montague Area Public Schools and Whitehall District Schools, for 21 years. The two districts have a combined enrollment of about 3,500 students with a pre-pandemic free/reduced rate of 47 percent. Before COVID-19 school closures, their ADP was about 60 percent for breakfast and high 60s percentages for lunch. Like thousands of his colleagues, Dan was notified on Friday, March 13, 2020, that schools would be closed starting Monday, March 16th. And on Monday, families in Montague and Whitehall could start picking up meal packs with seven breakfasts and seven lunches.

From those very first curbside meal pickups, Dan’s team has focused on making it as easy as possible for families to get the food they needed and making the quality worth the effort it took to get the food. They started and continued with a “grocery store” model, packaging pizza kits and taco meals. By working with suppliers to order was actually in the warehouse (rather than specific items with low availability), they were able to give families more food while maintaining food costs. They also worked with local Michigan Grown producers and others to purchase apples and carrots in bulk, creating 1-pound family size bags. Since schools have returned to a fairly consistent hybrid schedule, the districts have maintained a once per week pickup schedule of dinners and snacks plus breakfast and lunch when students are not in school. While participation numbers have dropped slightly, they are still sending out 1,000 meal packs per week, serving BIC and providing lunch in a variety of service locations.

Montague Pickup

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Dan agrees with most of his colleagues that the biggest challenge for the first few months of COVID emergency meals was the ever-changing, head-spinning series of waivers and guidelines. One of his biggest concerns was how to keep their staff safe. By summer 2020 they had figured the logistics out and were able to get into a basic routine. They realized that they were operating more of a warehouse rather than kitchens which helped with the musical chairs of storing large amounts of food in accessible locations. As students returned to school, sanitation became a major challenge in terms of labor – so many surfaces in so many locations.

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Dan also agrees with other directors here: He is incredibly proud of the food service staff in Montague and Whitehall, of how they stepped up to get the job done, even in the beginning when it was scary: “In those early months my staff were true heroes offering our families the stability and security of food on a weekly basis.” School nutrition became a true safety net for Michigan communities, taking care of the food and nutrition needs of families. Throughout it all the school nutrition employees continued doing things that were not their ‘normal’ job – not what they had signed up for – in a situation with myriad unknowns about their personal safety.

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

While it may sound minor, a simple innovation made staff’s lives easier while they were struggling to do a hard job. Switching to narrow pallets that fit through a walk-in door minimized loading and unloading, especially of bulk produce. They were able to serve lots of fresh produce with better logistics.

Packing boxes in Montague High School

Jeanne, Dayle and HOPE after a year of COVID-19!

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This blog post is going to be a bit more personal than recent interviews with school nutrition professionals that I have been sharing. It is about hope after social isolation, friendship that thrives in a pandemic, and the heroic efforts of school nutrition heroes in Maine, Montana and every other state. Jeanne Reilly wrote the original post on TIPS for School Meals That Rock and created the fabulous School Nutrition Hero graphic. I have edited the following text for clarity only.

Friends in Maine

Our Thought for today is HOPE. This past week, we had the pleasure of being together for an in-person visit. Hanging with a friend, hiking around southern Maine, enjoying spring weather , chatting endlessly, and contemplating a new school year with a new round of waivers – everything felt hopeful and we were both refreshed by our visit! 

For Dayle a visit to Windham-Raymond School Nutrition Program and the Mobile Meals van was her first on-site school visit since before the pandemic began. Things were certainly different: We were masked and serving meals out of a van, as well as in our cafeteria and classrooms but the simple act of returning to previously “normal” activities felt good and HOPEful. 

Windham-Raymond School Nutrition Program, Mobile Meals Van

For Jeanne, it felt good to have someone to strategize with about next year, to dig into the newest round of waivers, and someone to laugh and whine and obsess about ALL of it! Nothing like a little lobster, accompanied by a healthy dose of lighthouses, fresh Maine air, hikes and bald eagle sightings to give life and a fresh perspective full of HOPE and anticipation! 

As we look forward to next year, we have HOPE that all, or almost all students will be back to learning in person; HOPE that #HealthySchoolMealsforAll will continue to be available at no cost to students next year and beyond. We certainly know that it will be a long time before things feel 100% normal, but we have HOPE that we are on the road back. 

YOU are our HEROES!

As you know School Lunch Hero Day is next Friday, May 7, 2021. We have set a small goal of getting our TIPS for School Meals That Rock membership up to 17,000 by next Friday! Can you invite some of your friends who are not currently TIPS members? If every school nutrition hero invites one of their “essential” friends, we could meet and exceed 17,000 members in no time at all! There is strength in numbers – and the more members we have the better we can collaborate, share and inspire. We look forward to ALL your posts about your celebrations!

Are schools the healthiest places to eat in America?

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A recent study from researchers at Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University grabbed headlines across the country. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the school and senior researcher on the study, was repeatedly quoted as saying “Schools are now the single healthiest place Americans are eating.” Complete results are available in the article Trends in Food Sources and Diet Quality Among US Children and Adults, 2003-2018 from JAMA Open Network.

When RDN colleague, Cara Rosenbloom asked me to comment on the article, I jumped at the chance. This study (and the resulting media attention) is one more important way to share just how essential school meals are for the health of our country. You can read Cara’s excellent summary on verywellfit at Analysis of American Diet Finds School Meals Most Nutritious, including several quotes from me. It is also the purpose of 20+ blog posts where I have interviewed school nutrition leaders about their experiences during COVID-19.

Article by Cara Rosenbloom, RD

Here are my complete answers to the questions that she asked me.

Cara: In the research, it says that “the largest improvement in diet quality was in schools, with the percentage with poor diet quality decreasing from 55.6% to 24.4%, mostly after 2010, and with equitable improvements across population subgroups.” Can you comment on what changed after 2010 to account for this improvement?

Dayle: The major changes after 2010 relate to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFK) passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. The USDA website summarizes it well: Improving child nutrition is the focal point of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The legislation authorized funding and set policy for USDA’s core child nutrition programs: the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children , the Summer Food Service Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allowed USDA, for the first time in over 30 years, opportunity to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving the critical nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children. Over the decade since the HHFK was enacted, several other changes have led to improvements in school meals. Briefly these include:

  • Increased funding and dramatic expansion of Farm to School programs (including school gardens and actual school farms) across the US. For details and data, visit the USDA Farm to School website.
Burlington (Vermont) School Food Project serves as many local foods as possible
  • Increased focus on culinary training for school nutrition professionals and school chefs becoming more and more common. These efforts are supported by USDA Team Nutrition training grants and by 3rd party groups, often with industry support. An excellent example is the Healthy Kids Collaborative convened by the Culinary Institute of America.

Cara: Can you describe what children may be given as a typical school lunch? Which particular foods/nutrients may account for it being “healthy?” And how did that change from pre-2010?

Dayle: A typical school lunch includes whole grains, lean proteins and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Serving sizes and sodium levels are specified by age group. More details can be found in the 2018 Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior, and School Nutrition Association:Comprehensive Nutrition Programs and Services in Schools and the accompanying Practice Paper. 

Madison County, Kentucky, meals at school and curbside grab-n-go

Within the USDA guidelines and regulations, there is lots of delicious flexibility for schools to offer meals that appeal to students, introducing them to new flavors while respecting cultural traditions and food preferences. Since pictures are worth thousands of words, I invite you to scroll through the photos on TIPS for Schools Meals That Rock, a Facebook group of 16,800 members. Unfortunately the perception of school meals today still relies on some very old tropes of monochrome processed entrees with canned fruits and veggies. Today even the canned products have been reformulated. 

Cara:

Cars: How has COVID-19 affected school lunches? Are they still being distributed? Are they still nutritious?

Dayle: COVID-19 has affected school meals just like it has affected every aspect of our lives! The really good news is that school nutrition programs have been serving meals for children (and sometimes families too) often with 24 hours of school closures last March 2020. 

School nutrition professionals have been true heroes during the pandemic – making certain that children were fed even if it meant putting themselves at risk. The meals, meal kits and meal boxes that they have served – through heat, cold, snow and rain – have been an actual lifeline to families everywhere in the USA. 

Many thanks to the school nutrition staff in Carson City, Nevada

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Janis, Ben and 129 Employees of the Year!

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Director Janis Campbell-Aikens, MBA, RDN, SNS, CD, and Coordinator Ben Atkinson, MS, RDN, CD, have worked together in Auburn, Washington, School District Child Nutrition Services for 2 years. The district has about 16,500 students with a pre-pandemic free/reduced rate of 52 percent and daily average of 5,000 breakfasts and 9,000 lunches. When Washington State schools closed in March, Auburn started serving grab-n-go meals curbside and very quickly switched to bus route deliveries in partnership with their transportation department. From March 2020 to March 2021 their department served 1,635,239 meals, including meals at every school break which was new for them. Elementary students, who are currently in school buildings 2.5 hours per day, pick up a cold breakfast and hot lunch on their way home, with some schools receiving Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program snacks as well. Secondary students, who are in buildings for a full day 2 times per week, receive breakfast and a hot lunch during their lunch break. Additionally, there are curbside pick up locations at each school, as well as 8 mobile distribution routes serving about 50 stops throughout the school district.

Child Nutrition Services delivery vans

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Janis and Ben agreed that their biggest concern was keeping their employees COVID-19 safe with precautions unclear and/or changing from week to week. And they succeeded! While there were COVID cases, they never spread within the department. They are very grateful for the ongoing communication and regular guidance updates from the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

This March Auburn School District honored all 129 ASD Child Nutrition staff members as the Classified Employees of the Year. As noted in the district’s announcementStaff members in this department are true frontline heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic and have been since the first days of the pandemic. A few examples:

  • They were serving meals to students the week after schools closed. This was during a time when very little was known about COVID-19 and they showed up to prepare and serve meals to thousands of children.
  • Staff volunteered to work on spring break, Thanksgiving break, winter break and mid-winter break to make sure no children in Auburn go without food.
  • They worked all summer serving meals throughout Auburn, Algona & Pacific.
  • They are reimagining in-person school meals so we are sure to follow all of the health and safety requirements AND make sure students have good nutrition.
  • The CN office staff has worked to support families and assist with resources.
Wonderful way to recognize the contribution of Child Nutrition

Janis and Ben noted that between Child Nutrition and Transportation they knew the needs of each and every kid – and they were able to make certain that they got the food they needed.

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Even the midst of the pandemic Ben has continued to focus on innovations in packaging and testing new recipes. These have included fresh, new flavors like Bahn Mi and Cuban sandwiches as well as the cultural flavors that reflect the meals that families enjoy at home, including chana masala and beef lo mein. They hope to continue and grow both of these innovation channels in the future.

Taste testing new recipes: Bahn Mi and Mozzarella Tomato Sandwiches plus Beef Burrito Bowls

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Maria and Your Choice Fresh!

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Maria Eunice, MS, SNS, has been the Director of Alachua County Food & Nutrition Services, Gainesville, Florida, for 16 years. The district has 30,000 students with a free/reduced rate of about 50 percent. Pre-pandemic the department – also known as Your Choice Fresh with the tagline Empowering Students Through Healthy Meals – served approximately 1.6 million breakfasts, 3.5 million lunches, 420,000 suppers and 680,000 snacks per year.

Cutest pick-up customers ever

During the year of COVID-19, Food & Nutrition Services was an acknowledged “shining star” in the district serving over 6.4 million meals since March 2020. Using a total of 81 sites (curbside and bus routes) during school closures, Alachua actually grew breakfast participation to 2.1 million meals. With only two weeks off in the past year, they have covered families’ nutrition needs every single day of the pandemic. With the exception of 6,500 virtual learners, all students have been in-person and eating at school since August 2020. Twenty-four curbside sites are still open for bulk distribution two days per week from 9:30 am to 1:00 pm. Every decision – like these distribution times – has been made to maximize participant convenience and customer service. If local students needed food, Alachua Food & Nutrition Services was there to provide it.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

The main challenge identified by Maria will be familiar to nutrition directors across the country – how to make long term plans with short term waivers. While the waivers were (and are) wonderful, they often caused disruption in food and commodity orders that had already been placed for summer and back-to-school meals. Shifting gears for major pivots happened on several occasions in Alachua. They also experienced supply-chain issues for food items, packaging and even bins to use on bus routes. They thrived thanks to dedicated employees and community support.

Alachua employees make all the difference

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Maria is very proud of the new and improved relationships within the school district and the wider community that have grown over the year of COVID-19. Food & Nutrition Services trained paraprofessionals, crossing guards and, of course, bus drivers to help with food distribution – and some have become department employees! Everyone, including the school board, has a new appreciation for the importance and contributions of the Your Choice Fresh. Unexpected assistance came in many forms; at bus route distribution points, the local police would often announce the arrival of meals and encourage families to ‘come and get it’ over their PA systems.

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Food & Nutrition Services wants to continue growing their engagement with families around food and nutrition at home. The YC at Home (Your Choice at Home) platform has allowed them to effectively share nutrition and culinary education, reinforcing the benefits of school meals for the whole family at home. The use of QR codes is another successful innovation that they will keep using. Printing the codes onto packaging and menus has made it easy for customers to find cooking instructions and other information on the departmental website – with one click on a smartphone.

Customer service with QR codes for links to recipes and more

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Shannon, Katie and the A-Team!

Shannon C Solomon MS, SNS, been with the Aurora (Colorado) Public Schools Nutrition Services for 13 years. She started as a kitchen manager and rose through the departmental ranks to become Director of Nutrition Services three years ago. Katie Lopez, SNS, has been Assistant Director of Nutrition Services for five years. Pre-pandemic the district had 40,000 enrolled students – approximately 72 percent eligible for free/reduced meals – serving 26,000 lunches and 15,000 breakfasts on daily basis. When schools closed in March 2020, the “A-Team” immediately made one of many pivots to begin serving curbside locations (53) and on bus routes (17) throughout Aurora. This basic Grab-n-Go model – with a daily meal packs for all children served 10:45 to 11:30 – continued throughout the summer.

Starting October, Aurora students gradually returned to school using a hybrid learning plan. The department continues to serve curbside, on buses, and in-school meals – with their mission as their north star: Nutrition Services supports student achievement by serving nutritious, delicious, quality meals with excellent customer service. During COVID-19 the A-Team has focused on feeding students and families where they are. By the week of April 19, they will have served 7 million meals – including 9,000 Turkey dinner kits for Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving dinner distribution

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Solomon and Lopez are quick to identify the overarching challenge they faced during COVID-19 – fear. Administration, educators and department employees were afraid of the virus and afraid of failing to feed children adequately. They overcame fear with a combination of transparency and trust – along with healthy doses of persistence, grit and flexibility. The Nutrition Services stayed focused on the mission of feeding kids – this is what we do no matter what. Lopez attributes much of the A-Team’s success to Shannon’s leadership style of consistency and clear direction. She has been at work every day making sure that the employees have what they need to fulfill their motto: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop Feeding Kids.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop Feeding Kids

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

In a March 2021 report, the A-Team list best practices that have enabled them to serve 7 million meals. It is worth listing them here because they illustrate that multiple factors are what makes Aurora Public Schools Nutrition Services so special:

  • Culture of open sharing of fears, doubts, unknowns and emotions (no right or wrong)
  • Grateful Challenge exercise
  • Communication, communication, communication
  • Daily wellness checks
  • Daily debriefs
  • Daily virtual huddles
  • Consistency, communication, marketing
  • Having fun!
  • Clear mission
  • Delicious, nutritious, QUALITY meals: If we wouldn’t eat it, we wouldn’t serve it!
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables daily
  • Community outreach
  • Inventory management
  • Utilization of social media
  • Menu flexibility
  • Celebrate all victories – big or small!
  • Embrace failure and daily changes
  • Adapt and pivot quickly with a clear communication process
  • Partnered with neighboring districts on all best practices
  • Partnered with local restaurants to provide a hot lunch option every other week.
  • Providing a ready-to-eat item in each bag. This often allowed families to enjoy their meal on site while socially distancing.
  • Partnered with Children’s Hospital Colorado to help with the need in the community. In April, hospital staff began passing out Food Boxes to our community at APS drive-thru sites. This partnership was a game-changer for the community in Aurora.
  • Sending home Big Bag Friday with meals to sustain over the weekend
  • APS Foundation coordinated donations to cover the cost of adult meals

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Shannon and Katie are eager to continue meeting their customers where they are throughout school campuses. They now have grab-n-go hallways carts in every wing of many schools. Now that they have the right equipment – thanks to grants from Dairy Max – they are able to increase participation in a variety of ways. Plus, now that administrators and educators have realized meals in the classroom can work well, Nutrition Services hopes to make BIC and other classroom meals the norm.

Fulton Family Picnic in the park

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Scott and his video “career”!

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Scott Anderson, has been the Food Service Director in Madison County Schools, Kentucky, for 6 years. Before moving into School Nutrition, Scott had years of school experience as a teacher, assistant principal and principal. Madison County Schools has about 12,000 enrolled students and is 100 percent CEP. Pre-pandemic their ADP was approximately 75 percent at breakfast and 80 percent at lunch. When schools closed in March 2020, Madison County immediately switched to a daily drive-thru distribution model – or as Scott calls it “feeding cars” – with a couple of meals at a time (at least one being a hot meal). The next pivot was a two-month period of delivering meals by bus (15 daily routes) which became a logistical nightmare. In May 2020 they switched back to having parents come to them, with their one Street EATZ bus delivering throughout the city of Richmond, Kentucky. They began to focus on high quality meal kits that families could prepare at home, including take-and-bake Build Your Own Pizza Friday and crockpot meals, as well as all-you-need-ingredients for cookouts and porch picnics.

Madison County Pizza Kits being enjoyed at home

Currently about half of the district elementary and middle students are in-person and half are virtual, while high school is still on independent study. Meals are served to everyone in school with 90 percent eating breakfast and 100 percent enjoying lunch. Weekly meal packages including CACFP suppers are distributed from 4 to 6 on Tuesday afternoons (about 3-5,000 per week). Since the COVID-19 closures began, the district as served over 2 million meals, currently about 150,000 and 160,000 meals per week counting in-school and distribution to families.

Meals served in-school and distributed to virtual learners

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Scott mentioned two interrelated challenges: The first was retraining the over 100 departmental employees who were very proud of home cooked meals they prepared and served to students. Daily contact between students and staff were very important to both – and gone during school closures. During COVID-19 employees had to be trained to prepare new products, like frozen meals to be baked at home and meal kits. On the customer side, families were accustomed to gourmet-quality, house-made meals for their children at school. They had to be convinced that the meals were worth coming to pick up. Marketing to the community became very important – Scott has leveraged the video possibilities on Facebook to show the visual quality of their food. His videos are open, transparent and folksy – and a new video can directly increase participation when it starts to level off a bit. The Madison County Food Service FB page now has over 5,500+ followers with lots of engagement!

Scott Anderson use videos to share everything about Madison County Food Service. Here is talks about new cafeteria tables.

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Scott is most proud of his team – how they stepped to embrace a job that was not exactly what they had signed up for. They love kids and have been working straight through for a year – including summer – to serve students the best meals possible. The department has been recognized with three awards but the most important thing is that they are doing it for kids.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Madison County Food Service have been “Team Essential”

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

While Scott recognizes that his department has gotten good at feeding virtual learners and that take-and-bake options may continue in the future, he honestly just wants to get back to doing what they did before COVID-19, like baking all their own bread.

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Brian, on a mission at St. Labre Mission!

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Brian S. Jones has been the Food Service Director at St. Labre Indian School (a private Catholic School) in Montana for five years. The 100% CEP district enrolls 600 students from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations in three buildings, each with its own kitchen. Pre-COVID the program was preparing breakfast and lunch meals for all students. Brian and his 26 staff members have a well-deserved reputation for excellence: St. Labre meals are made from scratch, everything from the baking of all breads and rolls to cutting and slicing fruits and vegetables for salad bars and lines. Brian also been known as the “bison man” in SNA circles because the school raises, processes and serves their own bison meat.

When schools closed in March and students were scattered throughout a sparsely inhabited area without reliable transportation, Brian knew he had to do something different to keep feeding his customers. He had always been thinking about packaging systems in the back of his mind and knew this was the time to purchase them. The administration agreed to buy three packaging machines, one for each kitchen. Later a donor read about their success with packaged meals and donated funds for a fourth machine to increase capacity. The program made, packaged and delivered over 900 meals per day – the same high quality, house-made meals that they served before the pandemic, like salads and parfaits. The schools are gradually returning to in-person learning with meals in the classroom and some older students living full-time in the dormitory.  

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

To achieve Brian’s vision of a quality end-product, the entire staff had to be re-trained. Basically school kitchens with tray lines had to be turned into production kitchens with assembly lines. Cooks needed training on adapted recipes and the packaging crew needed to learn the ins-and-outs of packaging machines. Due to supply chain and storage issues (challenges in the best of times), the district also had to go to shelf stable milk.

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Brian doesn’t hesitate for a moment in giving credit where credit is due: He is incredibly proud of his staff. He recognizes that much of their work satisfaction comes from daily interactions with students around nourishing food. They were able to take that energy and passion for mostly personal relationships and turn it into the more routine jobs of packing and delivery food. Because transportation routes had be reconfigured and buses could not go unto certain areas, food services employees also became food van drivers – a sometimes treacherous situation due to weather and the potential for COVID exposure.

Employees have embraced production meals

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Sadly the reservations served by St. Labre School have been hard hit by the pandemic with high rates of infection and deaths. It is the tradition of the tribes to serve large funeral feasts for extended families and friends, often at events for up to 150 people. The multiple packaging machines have been getting lots of use for catering these events (at cost) – sometimes up to six in one week.

Production Meals in St. Labre Indian School

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Hannah in Kansas City, MISSOURI!

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Hannah Thornburgh RD/LD, has been a Supervisor/Dietitian in Kansas City Public Schools (KSPS), Kansas City, Missouri, for 16 months. The 100 percent CEP district has about 15,000 enrolled students. Before pandemic school closures, ADP in the district was approximately 80 percent for lunch and 50 percent for breakfast. When KSPS schools closed in March, the district started serving curbside meal packs (one to three days at a time), then closed completely for a month to develop a service model that could serve as many students as possible. Meals on the Bus was created with the transportation department and a goal of having every student no more than a mile from a school meal distribution stop – 190 stops throughout the city. Breakfast and lunch were distributed daily plus weekend meals on Friday (and on days when weather was problematic). Although participation was lower than their traditional in-school service, Meals on the Bus (along with targeted home deliveries) were eventually serving about 75 of usual district meals.

Meals on the Bus for Fall semester 2020

On March 8, 2021, KCPS students started returning to school gradually using a two-day hybrid model. In-school meals include BIC, grab-n-go, and Café in the Classroom (for lunch). Hybrid learners have take-home meals on Tuesday and Friday, on Wednesday curbside bulk meals are distributed to remote learners. Meals in the Classroom (MIC) have gone smoothly because BIC had been the usual mode of service in 15 of 34 districts schools.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Imagine being a new-to-school-nutrition menu planner during the constantly changing environment of waivers and safety precautions from March 2020 through today. That has been Hannah Thornburgh’s year of COVID-19. Coming to school nutrition from a non-profit education position in Operation Food Search in St. Louis, Hannah not only had to learn menu patterns and components, but she also had to learn how to change them with an evolving set of waivers – sometimes on as weekly basis – almost like a Rubik’s cube of menus! Hannah also had to develop new supervision and employee management skills during a time when staff assignments had the potential to be life-or-death situations. Perhaps her toughest challenge was how to keep a positive attitude in new city under lockdown conditions!

Menu for hybrid high school meals, April 2021

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Although her pandemic year has been plenty stressful, Hannah is grateful to be working in a department where food security and equity are top of mind. Knowing that you are a community lifeline means making “how to reach more people” has been part of every departmental discussion leading directly to initiatives like Meals on the Bus. She is also focused on growing the department’s Facebook page – another way to get the word out by engaging families, district leaders and other stakeholders.

EQUITY is even on their t-shirts

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Meals on the Bus will continue as a part of KSPS meal service – likely for summer feeding. It has become an essential part of equity in their district a way to serve the best possible meals to families that need them. Hannah also plans to increase social media – perhaps with a nutrition education channel on YouTube.

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Chad and the Decorah Community!

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Chad Elliott, has been the Nutrition Director and Culinary Specialist in Decorah Community School District for 10 years. The district has an enrollment of 1,600 students (approximately 20 percent) in a town of about 6,000 in rural northeast Iowa. When school were closed, the Decorah team packed 5 lunches and 5 breakfasts for pick up and delivery. The nutrition department also delivered meals to families in need when bus drivers were not available. Decorah schools have been back in session full-time since January 2021 with a few families still picking up five day meal packs for remote learners. Participation has not yet returned to pre-COVID levels and Chad is hopeful that they will be able to get back to full-service nutrition next year.

Homemade breakfast pizza with juice and yogurt

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

According to Chad, the availability of product was the biggest challenge for their department over the past year. When they needed non-perishable, pre-portioned meal components, they could not get them from their main purveyor. Disposable items for packing food items were also in short supply and unpredictable when ordered. Fortunately northeast Iowa is a mecca for local food and the Decorah Community School District (DCSD) is fortunate to have locally produced foods on their menus every day. When products were unavailable from their usual distributor, local farmers and producers provided items through the Iowa Food Hub that the school could use in grab and go bags. These items included cheese curds, yogurt, meat stick, and a variety of vegetables.

Local farmers and producers provide products for bulk meals in 2020

DCSD had extensive school gardens and grow houses that provided produce for school meals in years past. Production from these programs suffered during COVID but Chad and his staff are eagerly looking forward to onions, Bibb lettuce, beet greens and many herbs this spring. DCSD has been famous for many scratch-cooked items; these herb bread and rolls served on April 8, 2021, shows that the tradition continues.

Bread and rolls with parsley and thyme

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

I cannot express how proud I am of our nutrition staff,” says Chad Elliott. When fear of the unknown was rampant, the nutrition employees stepped up and selflessly changed their work schedules and hours so meals could get prepared and handed out to families in need. When schools shut down for remote learning, nutrition staff remained flexible and continued to build meals each day for deliveries to students, often using their personal vehicles each day due to the lack of available bus drivers. Nutrition department employees have clearly embraced one of Chad’s favorite Martin Luther King’s quotes: The time is always right to do what’s right.

Decorah nutrition employees

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Before COVID-19, Decorah had done minimal cross-training in the district’s six kitchens. Over the past year, they increased their cross-training by necessity – in order to maintain service throughout the district. Cross training is now something that they use to open up staff to new strategies, positions and ways to get things done. It has given employees a new perspective and appreciation for the work being done in other kitchens.